DB: There’s obviously a large amount of mistrust toward mainstream media, including The New York Times and other news organizations that they see as being a part of the problem. You might get a weird look, or “You’re from the what?” But by and large, there’s a deep desire among the people who are in this movement to be understood. They want to be heard; they want to reach a bigger audience.
GM: Were there other reporters, or other journalistic institutions, whose work you found useful?
DB: I certainly tried to read everything I could that was written about the movement. But what is more important is to understand some of the books that are at its core. You really do need to read The Five Thousand Year Leap and understand who Cleon Skousen is. You need to know who Edward Griffin is, and how his book The Creature from Jekyll Island plays into this. You need to understand why Atlas Shrugged has become such a big seller in this country. It’s not just reading the stories about the Tea Party movement, it’s actually delving in to the body of books and magazines and Web sites that help form the walls and floors and ceilings of this political subculture. A big part of this movement that has not been well explained or understood by the media is that there is a robust intellectual subculture to it. These people are going to seminars on the Constitution; they are reading books; they are taking a new look at their country and how it got to where it is today, and that’s something I was trying to reflect in the story.
GM: Are there other points you think the media has not captured?
DB: I think a lot of stories approach the Tea Party movement from the frame that this is a fight about how conservative the Republican Party should be. And there’s obviously something important about that, and it should be explored, but the Tea Party movement that I’ve come to know is aiming higher than that. They are seeking a bigger transformation than just nudging the Republican Party a little bit to the right. You start seeing, for example, their feelings about wanting a drastically smaller federal government. And you’re seeing some of those ideas percolate up to the policy realm; look at Paul Ryan putting out a budget proposal that would phase out or seek to privatize Social Security. It’s not merely about trying to get rid of a couple moderate Republicans; it’s seeking a much more sweeping political reordering. I think sometimes the coverage has a hard time explaining that. A lot of the coverage is about how these people want smaller government and less taxation. That’s true, and yet it doesn’t completely get what’s going on.
GM: Did you come to any conclusions about whether that project is viable?
DB: I have no idea. I was just trying to do the best job I could to explain what it was what that I was seeing. That’s a hard enough job as it is, rather than trying to figure out whether or not it’s going to work.
GM: You started in September and didn’t write anything else while you were working on this story. Even in the investigative unit, is there any institutional pressure to hurry up and get the piece done?
DB: I think we all understood that when you embark on something like this, it’s not like you can go to a GAO report and read up on it quickly. It’s not like there was a body of literature that you can go out and quickly get up to speed. It requires more patience to spend enough time, and do enough interviews, to get to a point where you feel “Okay, I got it.” This is precisely the kind of story and precisely the kind of topic where having the resources and the time to go deep is not just a luxury, but really a necessity, in order to do a decent job explaining a movement that people are struggling to get a grip on.